16 Apr COVID-19 and Play
The trauma of the Coronavirus has completely changed our lives. We have all had many feelings of fear, chaos, and loss as we try to manage and control the “unknowns” of the situation. This can leave us feeling completely exhausted and wiped out as we navigate the changes of our life.
Parents and caregivers are having a tough time at the moment. Many are having to juggle the concept of working from home, home-schooling or generally trying to look after their children. We have no idea the duration of this new situation, and the unknown of this creates anxiety and worry in both children and adults. Unfortunately we cannot remove the uncertainty that COVID-19 brings. However, we can look for opportunities where we have some control and assurance.
Firstly, it is ideal to have realistic expectations and not place any “shoulds” or expectations on ourselves. When we place “shoulds” and expectations on ourselves, we activate our system for dysregulation, and set ourselves up to feel disappointed about our feelings or behaviour. Lisa Dion, a Synergetic Play Therapist, describes “we are denying who we are in the moment and seeing our own wisdom. This can create an internal dilemma between who we are and who we think we should be” (Dion, p 36. 2018).
The role of parents and caregivers is to provide physical and psychological safety. This can be supported through a flexible but consistent daily routine. Before the Coronavirus we were unconsciously in a routine throughout the day. Perhaps it was leaving for work at the same time or going to the gym a certain day of the week. Humans, and especially children, thrive in an environment in which there is some consistency. I would suggest creating a new routine, together as a family. Creating this together with your children helps them have a sense of ownership and control, which means that they will probably be more enthusiastic to follow it!
It is important to schedule a balance of together play and time-apart play. Remember that before the Coronavirus, we were used to spending substantial amounts of the day apart, and so failing to create boundaries of each other’s space can lead to unnecessary conflict.
Another way to create an environment of physiological safety is to support your child’s play. Encouraging them to be creative and curious, by allowing your child to play, allows them to regulate and to safely express feelings of worry, sadness, fear and confusion. When playing with your child, let them lead the play. Following their lead in the play gives them a sense of control, power, independence and mastery which is particularly important at a time such as this.
Allowing them to have this power and control will actually decrease power and control behaviour struggles. Many parents believe that “giving in” to their child’s desire for power and control during play, will lead to them demanding more control in other areas of their life. This is not the case. Play offers children an experience of handling power and control, which they rarely have in a day to day situation. Children have limited opportunities for power and control as many adults at home and at school take control of decisions for the benefit of the family system. Through allowing your child to have the power and control in their play, they can master a sense of power and control, learn to manage feelings and impulses all through the safe medium of play.
It is absolutely fine to let children have “free play” to themselves (as long as you are overseeing safety). When your child is expressing an emotion through their medium of toy, try to get them to name their feelings. This may be something like “it looks like the rabbit is feeling scared right now”.
Children at the moment may be playing out themes relating to the Coronavirus, illness, loss of being away from school, missing friends or cancelled holiday plans. This is normal and helpful for the child to process what they are experiencing. There is no need to worry or “fix” this kind of play, but it is perhaps an opportunity to be curious and to instigate later conversations if you are concerned.
I would advise using the medium of what they were using as a metaphor, for example “it sounds like the bears were feeling sad about missing school. What is it they are missing about school?”. Using the toys helps provide a sense of safety that makes it easier for children to express thoughts and feelings that they may not otherwise feel comfortable sharing. In the play room this technique is called externalisation. Through the toys, the child is able to create a space between themselves and the problem.
During this time it is important to find the balance of playing together, and playing apart. It has been useful for my daughters to understand this boundary and re-emphasizing “play together, play apart”. When we set this boundary it helps reduce conflict, but also helps them appreciate and love the connected together play time.
When we have time together we create nurturing and connecting activities. A few of the favourites in my family have been playing with balloons. Balloon tennis and balloon football, passing it between each other either with your hands and feet to make sure that it’s kept up in the air. We have also created treasure hunt games with riddles and clues. They have had to think and co-operate together in order to find the treasure at the end.
My favourite game that I love playing with my clients as well as my girls is the Burrito blanket game. The child lies in the middle of the blanket and adds extras (cheese, avocado, sauce). Whatever filling the child chooses by touching different parts of their body then wrap the blanket around the child like a burrito. Then the parent pretends to “eat” the child by giving kisses on the face and neck!
Play together and playing apart will help improve the mental health of the whole family. It is important that this is a priority now more than ever. Remember especially during this time that we are all doing the best we can.
If you feel that your child and family is not coping then please contact Sarah at Blooming Heart Therapy (www.bloominghearttherapy.com).
Sarah Harwood is a wife, and a mother to two daughters. She is marriage, child and family therapist, a play therapist and a parent-child educator.